Selling Your Family on Flying

Your beaming family has just arrived at the airport for their first airplane ride with you as captain. The smiles on their faces, fueled by excitement and anticipation, will be surpassed only by their delight after you have introduced them to the wonders of flight.

Every soon-to-be pilot has dreams like these, but that’s not always the way it goes. Here you are, wrapping up your private pilot training, psyched about the upcoming adventure of flying with friends and family. But as you get closer to realizing your dream, you discover that your family isn’t quite as enthusiastic as you might have hoped. Everyone is proud of your accomplishment. They just aren’t yet comfortable with the idea of joining you for a flight.

Chances are your loved ones haven’t flown much, if ever, in light airplanes. Since you, the family’s proud new pilot, once dinged the family car, or can’t fix a broken sink, or sometimes forget to turn off the porch light before going to bed, family members sometimes worry that their new aviator might not yet have what it takes to be a skilled, safe pilot. Besides, they’ve heard about your travails during training, your struggles mastering crosswind landings, and how you felt momentarily lost on your first cross-country. After all, you did earn your certificate only last week.

How Do We Encourage People We Care About To Fly With Us?

First we must be sensitive to the subliminal effects of stories and apprehensions we share with our families during training. Family members may not pay much attention to these comments at first, but as your checkride approaches, they begin subconsciously to note whether you seem confident or not. So be careful not to tell too many “There I was,” stories. Instead of being impressed by your bravery, your future passengers may become alarmed at how dangerous it all sounds.

One private pilot I know is married to a woman who is petrified of flying, but in a noble effort to share his enthusiasm, she flies with him anyway. That’s a wonder, because this guy makes even the most docile flight sound like a life-or-death struggle with the elements and the airplane. Every flying story is peppered liberally with phrases like, “I barely maintained control,” and, “The controls were virtually ripped from my hand by the crosswind.”

Obviously this fellow wants to impress his audience with his masterful flying skills, but the effect has been to drive his family away from his favorite hobby and to scare friends out of ever joining him in an airplane.

Of course part of the fun of piloting is sharing adventures and challenges along the way, but be careful how you embellish those tales. Be sure to include the happy outcomes, new skills, and increased confidence that resulted from those experiences. Don’t tell war stories in front of nonpilot friends and family!

An Enjoyable First Flight Is Crucial

It’s easy to see why a smooth first flight is so important; it gives passengers the confidence they need to believe in you. You may get only one or two opportunities to introduce loved ones to flight, so it’s critical not to blow it. Depending on how those first flights go, your passengers may fly regularly with you in the future, or never step aboard again.

So do all you can to deliver each first-time passenger a wonderful experience. Fly early or late in the day, avoid wind and turbulence, and handle the controls with supreme smoothness.

Although you’ve just invested many hours mastering flight maneuvers, those are not the skills to demonstrate on the family’s first flight. A surprising number of new pilots try to impress passengers with their newly acquired flying skills by performing stalls and steep turns. This can be a disastrous error, because once family members become frightened of flying, there’s a significant chance that they won’t try it again. Piloting airplanes is like riding motorcycles⸺”driving” is a blast, but riding as a passenger can be scary because you have no control. Scare your passengers on their first ride, and your career as family pilot may be over, permanently.

Also, first flights with newbie passengers should be brief⸺twenty minutes to an hour, depending on how they respond. Show them some local landmarks, fly over the house, and maybe land somewhere for lunch. (Avoid tight circling over those landmarks!) Best to deliver a short and “dull” ride leaving them begging to go again, than to overdo the experience.

Appropriate skills to demonstrate on first flights are smoothness, great takeoffs and landings, and perhaps cross-country navigation. In short, your mission is to fly like a professional pilot.

What Makes Us Pros In The Eyes Of Our Passengers?

Certainly good judgment and precision flying skills head the list, but consideration for your passengers is also important. When you talk to your passengers about safety and comfort, they are likely to straighten in their seats, arrange their collars, and assume a serious expression. Now you sound like a professional pilot, and your passengers will notice the similarities.

One mark of a professional pilot to which everyone can relate is the preflight briefing. After all, that’s what happens on every airline flight, right? So along with regulatory obligations to brief your passengers, here’s an opportunity to help put your passengers at ease. Before starting the engine, spend a few moments explaining what’s going to happen from start-up through taxi and takeoff. For example, every passenger who’s seen a disaster movie knows the meaning of a flashing light or a beeping horn, right? Emergency!

Be assured that if you don’t explain it ahead of time, the eyes of your passengers will be glued in terror to that little blinking transponder reply light throughout the flight, until, that is, the stall warning grabs their attention upon landing. Point out before starting the engine that passengers may notice flashing lights during the flight and perhaps hear a horn, and that all of it is normal.

Explain how you’ll be steering with your feet en route to the runway, that pretakeoff safety checks will include running up the engine, and how after takeoff you’ll be banking and reducing power. It also helps to use a signal, like raising your right hand, when you’re busy or receiving radio calls to notify passengers that you require silence. Once aloft, fly with smoothness and alert passengers about what to expect under various flight situations.

Turbulence is particularly frightening for passengers. Never, ever schedule a first airplane ride when bumps are likely or the weather looks threatening for any reason. If you do anticipate a few bumps once in the air, use your training to point it out ahead of time.

“See those hills, Barb? Since there’s a breeze blowing over them from the west, we may experience a few bumps until we get to the other side.” Barb now knows what to expect, so mild turbulence will bother her less. And if it remains smooth, she’ll be suitably impressed by her knowledgeable pilot all the same.

When weather or other circumstances do cause you to cancel a flight, or if you must land somewhere other than your intended destination, don’t stress about it. Be conservative and proud of it. Your family will greatly respect you for no-go decisions, and will feel more confident about flying with you in the future.

What Flying Missions Will Engage Our Passengers?

As previously mentioned, it’s best to keep newbie flights smooth and relatively short until you’re certain your passengers have reached a healthy comfort level. But once achieving that comfort, you may face different challenges enticing them aloft.

Pilots often think that since they love flying, their friends and families will too. If only life were that simple. The fact is that few passengers have fun just “flying around,” especially early on.

That’s why it’s usually best to offer flying as an avenue for doing other things family members enjoy, rather than trying to get them to love flight itself. Instead of cruising around aimlessly for an hour, plan a destination where the advantages of going by air are obvious. Fly your husband somewhere in an hour that would require hours to drive, say to lunch with his buds across the state. Whisk him to the beach or off to a fishing adventure. But whatever you do, make his special interest possible through your piloting.

What makes a given flying trip really fun is having a destination. Family members might hem and haw a bit about flying around locally just for fun. But when it comes to a real mission, like flying to the mountains to pick up the kids from summer camp, now that’s exciting, and everyone wants to go.

I was already a pilot when I met my future wife. Jean put up with a certain amount of flying because it came with the territory, but she was not particularly interested in flying regularly. The breakthrough came when I suggested a trip to visit her folks.

An easy hour-and-a-half flight to her hometown saved four and a half hours of driving, including negotiating metropolitan Chicago. More importantly, my wife quickly realized that I’d gladly tolerate an otherwise difficult weekend with the in-laws if I got to fly there. It proved to be one of our better understandings, and Jean learned to use it most effectively.

“Want to go to Mom and Pop’s next weekend?”

“Well, er, I was planning on, er, cleaning out the garage.”

“Listen, Greg, we could fly up on Saturday morning, see my folks for dinner, and then fly back after brunch on Sunday.”

You can guess who won that discussion every time.

As friends and loved ones become more comfortable with aviation, their appetite for adventure will increase. Introduce them gently, and in most cases they’ll gear up for bigger trips as you progress as a pilot.

Still, keep your early flights with friends and family from being overly ambitious. One fellow I know wanted to make his first trip with passengers something they’d remember, and he undoubtedly succeeded. Having learned to fly in the Phoenix area, Joe decided to fly three close friends in a Piper Cherokee to a small airport in southern Utah for a family reunion. This is an ideal use for a light airplane, but it meant a trip of several hundred miles over mountainous terrain in the heat of summer.

Joe’s preflight homework was thorough, including careful fuel and density altitude calculations, plus selection of alternate airports along the route. On the morning of departure Joe made his first mistake. Not wanting to inconvenience his first-time passengers with a pre-dawn departure, he hosted them to a leisurely breakfast before taking off mid-morning. In the heat of a Southwest summer day, afternoon turbulence ranges from continuous moderate to occasional severe, so smart pilots plan flights only early in the day.

Just over the Utah border, Joe became uncertain of his position and deviated off course looking for landmarks, which of course is usually a mistake. The harder he looked, the more lost he became, until he finally decided to deviate to an alternate airport selected along the way. By then the air had become turbulent and his passengers? faces were buried in air sickness bags.

The plane was by now overdue for Joe’s flight-plan estimated time of arrival, so upon landing he and his passengers learned that flight service was looking for the airplane over a two-state area. After calling off the search, refueling, and regrouping, Joe and his passengers proceeded uneventfully to their destination.

Joe’s passengers might never have flown with him again, except that they had no choice, there was absolutely no other way to return home from the remote area. Fortunately, this departure was made early in the morning, and the return flight was as smooth as glass.

Although he made a few mistakes, this pilot actually did an excellent job of completing a challenging first flight as pilot-in-command with passengers. The flight’s safety was never compromised, and Joe’s thorough preflight planning made getting lost no more than a nuisance.

When you think about it, Joe’s was a terrific flying mission to plan with friends, it’s just that a few shorter flights first would have prepared them for the more ambitious trip to follow.

Selling White-Knuckle Passengers

Some people just take longer than others to get accustomed to the idea of flying, and a few will not participate at all. How might we sell white-knuckle passengers?

For nervous types it often helps to invite along an experienced pilot and passenger for the first few flights, even though you could easily handle it alone. A nagging fear for many passengers is that their pilot, however competent, might somehow become incapacitated in flight, leaving them helpless. An additional pilot obviously addresses this concern, while a seasoned passenger soothes nerves as well. Once passengers are comfortable with your piloting performance, most will warm to the idea of flying with you as sole pilot in the future.

Another useful tool for encouraging nervous passengers is “flying companion,” or “pinch-hitter courses that introduce non-pilots to the airplane environment. Graduates gain increased cockpit understanding, can assist with cockpit tasks, and, most importantly, learn what to do if their pilot becomes incapacitated.

Many organizations such as the AOPA Air Safety Institute, and the Ninety-Nines women-pilots organization offer flying companions courses, or you can individually arrange one with a trusted instructor. Some such courses offer only classroom training, while incorporate flight simulators or actual instruction in an airplane. I’m a particular fan of those incorporating flight simulators because fearful flyers get to experience flight controls and instrument readings without the added stress of being aloft.

While not every pilot’s companion wants to tackle such a project, I once gave pinch-hitter training to a 14-year-old who routinely flew right seat with her father. (Her mother, the pilot’s wife, wanted a cockpit backup but would herself ride only in the back seat.) After several hours of instruction I taught the young woman to land their favored Cessna 210, per Dad’s request. The landings weren’t pretty but she could predictably get the plane down safely, and the family was more comfortable knowing they had a backup. In any case, the more your regular passengers know about flying, the more comfortable they’ll be in your cockpit.

Group flying trips can also increase family enthusiasm about flying. Many flying clubs and flight schools organize multiple-airplane “fly-outs” to destinations from dinners to ski weekends. These are great for involving the family in aviation adventures as they include vacation destinations, other friends and spouses for moral support, and experienced pilots. There’s hardly a better way to spread enthusiasm about flying.

When friends and family are slow to gain confidence in our flying, it’s disappointing for us as pilots, but don’t give up. Sometimes it takes a while, but as hesitant passengers gain confidence in your growing experience, many do ultimately climb aboard.

One of the great joys of being a pilot is sharing the adventure of flight with others. Our challenge is to make sure the experience delivers delight, not dread. Once family and friends decide that flying is fun, they’ll ride with us through almost any adventure and, in most cases, keep smiling in the process.

Pilot your airplane like a pro, make flying a great experience, and chances are your favorite passengers will become your biggest fans.

“Hey, wow, Hon! I wasn’t so sure about this at first, but this is really fun!”


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4 thoughts on “Selling Your Family on Flying

  1. Great advice Greg – thanks! This is critical advice for new pilots. After all that work acquiring a pilot certificate you really do not want to blow the first opportunity to share your passion with your “significant others.” I ran a Flying Club for years and we had very specific instructions (and even a few recommended *sure winner* scenarios) for “family first flights.” Your experience with your wife flying all over the country proves that once this experience is sold, a lifetime of fun flying is your reward; work hard to make that first flight experience a winner.

      1. Alas, our scenarios are scripted for local airports with “known winner” attractions; e.g. short flight to an airport with a fun courtesy car (old police cruiser) and a great restaurant.
        I am sure this is a “known quantity” at every airport *if you ask!* It is unfortunate, but many pilots do not interact and share resources like this enough (“great restaurant at KXXX now open again and the gate code is…”)

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